The term “profound virtue carries things” is from a passage in the Zhou yi (Zhou changes; a.k.a. Yi jing, Classic of changes): “Here is the basic disposition of Earth: this constitutes the image of Kun. In the same manner, the noble man with his substantial virtue carries everything.” This means Earth, being vast and substantial, bears and sustains all things, so a person of honor should follow suit and love all living things with profound benevolence. This kind of thought contains a deep sense of ecological and environmental protection. It has a significant influence on the ways Chinese people deal with nature.


Chinese people emphasize the “unity of heaven and humankind,” which means people should follow natural laws, and get along with nature harmoniously. In order to protect natural resources, both the Confucian and Daoist schools of thought proposed ideas about ecological ethics. Different roads lead to the same goal, which is the “unity of heaven and humankind.” Before the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), because of the increasing population and greediness of rulers, the ecological system was severely damaged. In the long process of production and living life, thinkers not only realized that natural resources are the fundamentals of survival, but they also understood that natural resources are limited. Therefore, only by forming a balanced and harmonious union with nature, can humankind survive and progress. Everywhere in dynastic China, from the imperial court to district neighborhoods in the countryside, had laws and regulations for protecting the environment. Many records about local agreements and rules to protect nature still exist, as well as anecdotes about historical figures who famously protected ecological systems while serving the country. Meng Chang (governor of Hepu commandery of the Eastern Han, fl. 150–160) caused pearl-bearing oyster to reappear in the waters of Hepu; Liu Xun (Minister of War in Guangzhou of the Tang, late ninth century) discovered a biological control that removed harmful insects with the help of ants; Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756) of the Tang issued sumptuary edicts banning the wasteful consumption of commodities like pearls, jewelry, silk, and brocade; Li Guang (vice premier of the Southern Song, 1078–1159) proposed the restoration of farmland back to natural lakes; and various government officials in the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties (960–1644) implemented water control laws. These stories reflect the environmental wisdom of people living in the past. Many prohibitions today, such as cutting down young forests and overgrazing on grasslands, are influenced by ancient philosophical ideas about preserving ecological systems, such as “take natural resources at the proper time” and “never take all resources in one go.”


Confucius said, “Wise people love water; virtuous people love mountains.” From the ancient’s point of view, water is the source of all living things, and mountains are places to respect. They not only provide rich material wealth, but also bring us spiritual nourishment that feeds our hearts and pleases our eyes. Therefore, since ancient times, the Chinese have had a tradition of emotional attachment to nature and nature worship. This is a reflection of the “unity of heaven and humankind.” When choosing a place to live, Chinese are mindful about adapting local conditions to fit long-established principles of good geomancy. The ideal residence is protected on the north by a mountain, should face a life-affirming water source in the south, and be surrounded by greenery on all sides. In urban areas, these principles of proper siting for residences are achieved by the careful integration of house and garden. Traditional Chinese courtyard homes are designed to evoke as much as possible that the house is sited in an ideal landscape setting, intoxicating the town-bound householder with the natural beauty of the great outdoors. When traveling, Chinese take the opportunity to seek out scenic mountains and waters in order to commune with nature and cultivate their wisdom and virtue. They are inspired to do this by nature-loving sages and benevolent worthies like the Daoist herbalist Tao Hongjing (456–536), who was dubbed “prime minister of the mountain”; the naturalist poet Tao Yuanming (365?–427), known as the “Gentleman of the Five Willow Trees”; the “poet immortal” Li Bai (701–762); and the travel writer and geographer Xu Xiake (1587–1641). Travelers who live in today’s industrial world are successors to their concepts of cultural ecotourism.


The color “green” represents life as a symbol of environmental protection, health, science, and civilization. From the time of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, people understand “development” only as technological development and economic growth. This one-sided view causes ecological problems such as population explosion, water and earth imbalance, wildlife endangerment, and water and air pollution. Facing a serious crisis of ecological and environmental protection, human beings hope that the twenty-first century can be a “green century” and the technological revolution can gradually turn our world into a “green society.” In the transformation of our life practices, we should learn from the wisdom of the Chinese sages and the complementary philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism, in our search to preserve the ecological systems of our time.

Last updated:

Extended Reading